Petrillo, The Fire Station, The Station Articles

Station Communications Rooms Are Nerve Centers of Firehouses

Issue 5 and Volume 21.

The communications center in a firehouse is its link with 911 dispatching and serves the function of a central nervous system for the fire department.

The hardware and software systems that make the link are a critical part of the efficiency of a department in how firefighters respond and in keeping response times to a minimum. Several manufacturers have developed specialized communications equipment for fire departments and have designed in multiple options that can make getting a rig off the floor easier, faster, and safer.

Tying Stations and Dispatch Together

Doug Bartman, product marketing consultant for Motorola Solutions Inc., says the company offers fire departments the MACH Alert Fire Station Alerting System to fulfill their communications and interface needs. “MACH Alert consists of two components: equipment at the dispatch center and equipment in the fire station,” Bartman says. “The MACH Alert Fire Station Alerting System is designed to reduce alarm handling time-that is, the time from when dispatchers receive a 911 call to the time they dispatch that call out, and also the time from when the fire station receives the alert and when they actually get wheels rolling on the call. The system’s objective is to reduce those two times.”

David Alonzi, business development manager for Harris Corp., says his company’s main dispatching system is its Symphony console product. “Symphony interacts with the radio 911 and CAD systems to help perform the data and voice portions of a dispatch,” Alonzi says. “Symphony is a hardware-based system that runs our custom software and interfaces with P25 and conventional radios. The radio console becomes an extension of the network.”

Alonzi notes that Symphony is a completely digital product that supports system integration from the tip of the antenna to the microphone. “Any equipment that meets the P25 standard will work with the Symphony system,” he adds.

From a dispatch perspective, Symphony can signal a firehouse by sounding an alarm, providing 911 call center information and data, and turning on lights in a fire station, Alonzi points out. “It also can send dispatch information to specific vehicles and get status messages back from them as well,” he says. “It also can declare an emergency when a firefighter is in a Mayday status.”

1 Motorola Solutions makes the MACH Alert Fire Station Alerting System, shown here installed in a firehouse, where it links with dispatch and controls the firehouse speaker, lights, and other building systems. (Photo courtesy of Motorola Solutions
1 Motorola Solutions makes the MACH Alert Fire Station Alerting System, shown here installed in a firehouse, where it links with dispatch and controls the firehouse speaker, lights, and other building systems. (Photo courtesy of Motorola Solutions.)

Bartman points out that Motorola Solutions partners with DCR Engineering, a Florida-based company that does a lot of work with industrial controls and controls that can manage apparatus bay doors, alarms, and sirens. “The components manufactured by Motorola Solutions and DCR Engineering allow the MACH Alert system to integrate the lights, sirens, call boards, doors, and other elements controlled in the fire station,” he says. “DCR Engineering’s engineers also do a lot of the deployment for Motorola Solutions, where they go to fire stations to install the equipment and get it up and running.”

At the other end of the system, Bartman notes that Motorola’s servers are installed at dispatch centers, allowing the MACH Alert system to interact with radio consoles and computer aided dispatch (CAD) systems to create a seamless transition of information to fire stations.

The Motorola Solutions communications link between the dispatch center and the fire station is accomplished in two ways: first, an Internet protocol (IP) connection over the Internet through a wired connection; and second, digital and voice information transmitted over the radio system. “This increases reliability,” Bartman says. “The message is sent along both paths simultaneously to every fire station, and the servers at the dispatch center get the acknowledgment from the stations. If it doesn’t, the system lets the dispatcher know for a resend or to go to a different station.”

Bartman explains how the Motorola MACH Alert system works. “The 911 call comes into the dispatch center, and let’s assume it’s a structure fire,” he says. “Dispatch gets key information like the address, kind of structure (high-rise or single-family), and other info, then gets the alert to the relevant fire stations as quickly as possible. The CAD system identifies the resources that are available-for instance, if a ladder is needed, and if it has to come from one station, a pumper from another, and emergency medical services (EMS) from a third station.”

He continues, “When the dispatcher hits ‘send,’ MACH Alert simultaneously alerts those stations, sends out data, and activates the lights and sirens at the stations. The dispatcher also does a verbal setup of the situation with information to the stations over the radio system, which is connected with the digital information going out.”

Station Control

Bartman notes that when a fire station receives an alert, it might be coded for different types of responses. “The hardware can turn on colored lights to identify whether it’s a fire or an EMS response,” he says. “The system also can control different rooms in a station where it turns on the lights and alerting signal only in a certain room, perhaps a room with paramedics sleeping at 3 a.m., where you don’t want to awaken the entire station.”

2 The MACH Alert system is designed to reduce alarm handling time from when dispatchers receive a 911 call to the time they dispatch the alert and also the time when the fire station receives the alert to when firefighters actually roll on the call. (Photo courtesy of Motorola Solutions
2 The MACH Alert system is designed to reduce alarm handling time from when dispatchers receive a 911 call to the time they dispatch the alert and also the time when the fire station receives the alert to when firefighters actually roll on the call. (Photo courtesy of Motorola Solutions.)

“Many fire stations want video screens in their stations where firefighters can read details of a call and see a map of how to get to the destination,” Bartman says. That information is usually included in the CAD dispatch, he adds, and can be popped up on a screen in the apparatus bay area so firefighters can plan before leaving the station.

The MACH Alert system also can control an assortment of light indicators in a fire station, lighting them depending on the type of alarm. “It’s important for firefighters to get both visual and audible information as they are getting prepared to roll,” Bartman observes. “We also offer the option of CAD text-to-speech, where information typed by a dispatcher can be read in a computer voice at the station, as well as on a video screen. And, the system can open bay doors at a station, where if there are three doors, it knows which vehicle is parked in which bay and opens the relevant door automatically.”

Beyond the Station

With Harris Corp.’s acquisition of Excelis last year, it acquired C4i, an Australian manufacturer of military radios and voice over internet protocol (VoiP) console systems. “We’re introducing a new product after that acquisition called Crescendo, which is a transportable communications system, essentially a dispatch console in a transportable package that can be taken into the field,” Alonzi says. “First responders can show up at a disaster, open the Pelican™ case, plug in radios, and combine disparate radio systems to patch them together. Crescendo also can patch into telephone systems to link up radio calls to a telephone, which allows commanders to do teleconferencing with radio units in the field.”

3 Harris Corp. makes the Symphony console product as its main dispatching system. (Photo courtesy of Harris Corp
3 Harris Corp. makes the Symphony console product as its main dispatching system. (Photo courtesy of Harris Corp.)

Another Harris innovation is BeOn, a push-to-talk software application that allows a user to reach into a radio network and talk with individual radios or groups of them through a smartphone. “All three products work together as a complete system that makes communications go from a desktop application to teams in the field who need to hear it,” Alonzi says. “And, BeOn even allows you to see on a map where your assets are located.”

Real-World Application

In terms of emergency communications system interoperability, this past January the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) demonstrated the ability to share voice and data communications across a wide spectrum of emergency services agencies. The project, one of five national efforts in support of the FirstNet Public Safety Broadband Network, allowed local, state, and federal emergency services agencies to flawlessly share voice and data communications directly with each other. The test was conducted at the 2016 Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California.

4 Harris Corp. has introduced Crescendo, a transportable communications system that essentially is a dispatch console in a transportable package that can be taken into the field. (Photo courtesy of Harris Corp
4 Harris Corp. has introduced Crescendo, a transportable communications system that essentially is a dispatch console in a transportable package that can be taken into the field. (Photo courtesy of Harris Corp.)

Multiple vendors contributed to the successful launch of the LA-RICS system, including Motorola Solutions Inc., BlackHawk Imaging, Sonim Technology, Intrepid Networks, ESChat by SLA Corp., NVIS Communications, Barrett Communications, Star Solutions Intl. Inc., Pepro LLC, Cannon Cameras, Airship, Airwave Communications, and Milestone Video Management Systems.

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.

F.I.E.R.O. Fire Station Design Award Winner

Station: Sedona (AZ) Fire Department Station 6

ARCHITECT: LEA Architects